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Cheraina Bonner (center) pictured with family members Reggie Williams and Dorothy Clark. PHOTO CREDIT ANSWER SUNCOAST

SARASOTA— Sarasota County School Board’s board members were confronted by the community on Tuesday, September 3 during a regularly scheduled public board meeting. 

Out of the nearly 50 people in attendance, 16 people spoke during the Hearing of Citizens section of the agenda to speak on behalf of Cheraina Bonner, the former assistant to the school district’s chief operating officer, Jeff Maultsby. In June of 2019, Bonner filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that she was being harassed by Maultsby. Before filing the complaint, Bonner says she complained directly to Superintendent Todd Bowden and School Board vice chairwoman Caroline Zucker.

“As a victim I reported allegations of sexual harassment and hostile work environment by my superior and for weeks nothing happened,” said Bonner in Tuesday’s meeting. “It is shameful that Dr. Bowden didn’t think enough of me as an individual or an employee of the organization that he serves as Chief Executive over to take my claim of sexual harassment, inappropriate text messages, or threatening text messages as serious.”

Bonner says she is not only insulted because she feels like a victim who is being treated like the attacker, but she says a recent lunch she had with individuals affiliated with the local teacher’s union resulted in the beginning of a personal investigation against Bonner. “Todd Bowden found it necessary and important to write a memo requesting an investigation into my relationship with these individuals—to include my personal phone calls, e-mails, and text messages. There’s nothing illegal or in breach of any policies as it relates to my lunch company choices,” said Bonner in Tuesday’s meeting. “I have been insulted, belittled and humiliated. Most of you don’t realize how many sleepless nights I’ve had or battles with anxiety and depression that I have to experience since this started.” In Tuesday’s meeting Bonner said she feels Bowden seeks to protect himself and Maultsby.

“Dr. Bowden felt this lunch was a conspiracy against him so it came priority, but the protection of women was not high on the list of priorities under his leadership, leaving me neglected and not protected.”

She told the public on Tuesday that she is often times afraid to leave work because she has received text messages at 1 a.m. that say ‘snitches get stitches’ and ‘a whistle blower being killed.’ “The same effort that was taken to produce a memo about my personal life is the same effort that should have been taken to insure that an employee was not subject to further suffering when I reported sexual harassment and a hostile work environment to him,” said Bonner. Before the public took the mic during the “hearing of citizens” section of the agenda at Tuesday’s meeting, Arthur Hardy—the Sarasota County School Board’s attorney— asked that the members of the board not comment on the sexual harassment allegations until after they receive the results of the internal investigative report. Activists and family and friends of Bonner took the mic and spoke on the issue.

“We demand reprimands of Todd Bowden and his negligence,” said Deedra Zee of Sarasota’s Black Lives Matter organization. “And termination of Jeff Maultsby who does not deserve to be around children in this district. We demand accountability here in your school district.”

Bonner’s attorney, Sarah Blackwell spoke at Tuesday’s meeting as well. Blackwell is known for being the attorney of Bailey Davis and Kristan Ann Ware who were NFL cheerleaders with highly publicized gender discrimination cases against NFL teams. “She has three claims pending. One of them is a discrimination claim against Mr. Bowden based on race and gender,” said Blackwell. Blackwell used Tuesday’s meeting as a time to ask Caroline Zucker not to vote on the discrimination claim. “All federal, state and local courts do not allow judges who are material witnesses to participate as a judge. They have to disqualify themselves,” said Blackwell. “You have stated multiple times at several different meetings that you were the one who told her to go to Bowden and you sat in on her meetings with Mr. Bowden.”

“Based on all of the communications you’ve had, you are a witness to all of the outside investigation and all of the things that you witnessed and all of the participation that you’ve had makes you a material witness and under the state and federal laws you are not allowed to be a witness so I would ask that based on tax payers and as the attorney for Ms. Bonner that you would personally disqualify yourself for the integrity of the vote,”

said Blackwell. Zucker nor any of the other board members besides Shirley Brown responded, per request of Hardy. “It’s very hard to be accused of things that may not be accurate, but we cannot respond to those things. There is an investigation on going that is supposed to uncover who knew what when and what actions were taken,” said Brown. “I am precluded from making any comments about the incidents until we get that report.”